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‘Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book: Making a Masterpiece’ (review)

Written by Andreas Deja and
The Walt Disney Family Museum
Published by Weldon Owen


Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there were a number of wondrous books on the Walt Disney Studios that, for the first time, shared with the public much of the behind the scenes work in making the great animated Disney Classics. A new volume by Andreas Deja—tied to an exhibit this year at the Walt Disney Museum—is a worthy continuation of that tradition.

Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book—Making a Masterpiece is that book. In his introductory remarks the author, also the guest curator of the museum exhibit, says that The Jungle Book was the first Disney animated film he ever saw. In my case, it was my second, after The Sword in the Stone.

I really, really liked the movie, though, and thus got the Rudyard Kipling book it was based on out of the Public Library a few years later, only to find out for the first time just how Disneyfied the company’s animated films were. The book quotes Walt himself as saying of Kipling’s original, “There are some great characters in it, but it’s too dark and heavy…” So they took the characters and some situations and made up their own story.

The hero, both in print and on film, is Mowgli, a small boy raised in India by wolves. His best friend is Baloo, a bear. Baloo is voiced onscreen by Phil Harris. It’s the role that introduced Harris to several new generations as his show-stealing song, “The Bare Necessities” afforded the personable actor/comedian/bandleader his most prominent role since leaving The Jack Benny Show for his own series more than a decade and a half earlier.

According to Deja, it was The Jack Benny Show that got Harris the role that would define his later career. He had nearly walked away, thinking he couldn’t do a “bear voice” well enough, when he was told, “Phil, we don’t want a bear. We want Phil Harris like on The Jack Benny Show.”

Phil reportedly replied, “That I can do!” The character of Baloo, we’re informed, was changed considerably from the stories and Phil was even allowed to ad-lib a bit, creating what were the favorite parts of the movie for many viewers, myself included.

If any other character stole the film, it would have to be the energetic jazz musician and singer, Louis Prima, as King Louie, the orangutan, “King of the Swingers.” The author tells us that it was decided to create the character specifically for the picture, as there are no native orangutans or great apes in India. The Italian-American icon essentially plays himself and gets the show-stopping number, “I Wan’na Be Like You.” Sadly, Prima’s long musical legacy has become a bit of a trivia question, with The Jungle Book being what he is most remembered for today.

Speaking of musical icons, we also get the story of the four vultures who were almost but not quite supposed to be the Beatles and almost VOICED by the Beatles as well. Something I don’t believe I ever knew is that one of the vultures actually WAS voiced by a British Invasion musician—Chad Stuart, of Chad and Jeremy.

With lots of trivia and minutiae throughout, this book’s main attraction is still its artwork. From quick black and white sketches to animation cels, background paintings and highly detailed character studies and model sheets, you’ll find it all here. Toward the back, there’s even a section on the film’s 1966 merchandising, with several books I’m pretty sure I had back then.

If you’ve ever been a fan of the last animated feature Walt himself worked on, then Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book—Making a Masterpiece will be a much-loved and appreciated addition to your bookshelves.

Booksteve recommends.


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